Last week, the U.S.-based Environmental Working Group formally launched a new consumer app called Skin Deep. It draws on an extensive database the non-profit environmental research and advocacy organization has been building since 2004 to track the ingredient breakdown of more than 80,000 cosmetic products. It also rates the safety of those ingredients.

Nneka Leiba is deputy director of research at EWG in Washington, and says surveys show women are exposed to 168 chemicals in cosmetic products every day, while men are exposed to 85.

“Each product type has its own red flag ingredients," Leiba says. "Toothpaste with triclosanparabens are a type of preservatives that we say try to avoid; pthalates in nail polish — we suggest consumers try to avoid those as well. The term 'fragrance' can hide a multitude of ingredients —​ you don’t exactly know what’s in your product.”

Barcode scanner

Leiba says the new app, complete with a barcode scanner, will make it easier when shoppers are in the store, trying to decide between two products. A ranking system classifies each product as low, moderate or high hazard and offers an ingredient search for consumers who are trying to identify unfamiliar ingredients.

Skin Deep App

Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep app lets consumers know what's in their cosmetics. (EWG)

“So are any of the ingredients associated with cancer? Have any of them been linked to reproductive or developmental issues? Are there any hazards associated with these ingredients? We then have an algorithm that pulls all of this information and we give each product an overall score.”

Leiba says the availability of this information has already changed how people shop for products, with the database logging about a million page views every month. She's also seen companies respond to their own product rankings on Skin Deep, and make changes.

"Larger companies, like Johnson & Johnson, are now phasing out some of the more hazardous ingredients as well," she explains. "They have decided to phase out some of their formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, they're also phasing out some of the parabens of concern."

The availability of this information may end up surprising shoppers who find an ingredient like DMDM hydantoin in their product, and look it up.

“Those are preservatives used in a multitude of products," Leiba says. "Over time they release formaldehyde and this formaldehyde acts as a preservative. The problem is formaldehyde is classed as a carcinogen and so obviously we would rather not have carcinogens in our daily products.”